10 Sci-Fi Movies and TV Shows That Got the Science Wrong11
By Eric Tozzi
10 Sci-Fi Movies and TV Shows That Got the Science Wrong
I loved science fiction movies and TV shows as a kid. For me, it was more than just about the escapism. It was the prospect of a not-too-distant future in which flying cars, light speed travel and laser guns were going to be the norm – a peek into what would be.
Occasionally, there are those sci-fi stories that preserve a flexible outcome for our future, like the international conspiracy thriller series Tyranny, wherein the lead character has seen the future and is trying to stop it. What is particularly amusing, however, is when a film or TV show makes a prediction and attaches a date. Once that date has come and gone, some of the magic of “the future” is lost. Flash forward to the present and I still don’t have a flying car; we have not broken the light speed barrier; and if I purchase a gun, it won’t shoot lasers.
Still upset about that pie in the sky dream about owning a floating skateboard? Me, too. Here are some movies and TV shows that portrayed a future that never actually materialized because they featured planetary science that completely missed the mark.
Tyranny – The Beginning of The End
1. Lost In Space – Pilot Episode (1965)
I loved Lost In Space, especially the first season when it was still shot in black and white. I especially enjoyed the pilot episode in which the Robinson family is preparing for their voyage, and the nefarious Dr. Smith (before he became a bumbling buffoon) sabotages the ship and stows away for the ride. The plot was simple: it’s the year 1997 (gasp) and a new spaceship (the Jupiter 2), that is capable of light speed, will carry a family to a planet orbiting our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, in the hopes of finding a habitable environment for mankind. Well, 1997 came and went. I don’t remember anything about light speed capable ships, talking robots, laser guns and deep space colonization. I do remember a new home video format launching, called DVD, and that Internet thing was really taking off. I suppose in the mid-1960s someone could have believed that in just 30 years, we would travel at the speed of light. As a kid, I believed it too. Now I kinda feel ripped off! One more thing; there’s a great moment in the pilot episode (remember, it’s supposed to be 1997) where the head of the space agency picks up an old rotary phone to call the President and inform him that the Jupiter 2 is “hopelessly lost in space.” I don’t remember still having a rotary phone in ’97, but that’s just me.
2. Space 1999 (1975)
Space 1999 aired in the mid-1970s with the premise that there was a permanent space research center and multiple nuclear waste disposal sites on the Moon. The accumulated waste somehow blew up and sent the Moon hurtling out of Earth’s orbit and off into space like a runaway freight train. 1999 came and went, and the world was not concerned about its own moon flying away due to a bad case of nuclear flatulence. It was Y2K computer compliance the world was furiously contemplating. And that too came and went with all the impact of a thundering flock of butterflies. The last manned mission to the Moon was Apollo 17, which landed in December 1972. Since then, there have been no further landings on the Moon, to say nothing of a permanent science outpost being established. Maybe we can look forward to Space 2099 – without the nuclear waste part.
3. Mission To Mars (2000)
Ugh. This film is a real sore spot with me, especially since I’ve worked as a documentary producer and editor for the Mars Public Engagement office at JPL for the last four years. The biggest offense in this film is the claim that the mysterious face on Mars, as seen in images from the Viking 1 orbiter in 1976, is actually a massive metal structure built by ancient aliens. It ain’t! The HiRISE camera aboard the still functioning Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveals that the face is actually a naturally occurring Martian hill in what is now called the Cydonia region of Mars. When sunlight and shadow hit it just right in those much lower resolution images, voila: an alien face! Chalk it up to a bad case of pareidola (a psychological phenomenon whereby a vague or random stimulus, sounds or images, can be perceived as being significant). Come to think of it, that tortilla I had last night looked a lot like Rod Serling!
4. Red Planet (2000)
Released in 2000 just a few months after “Mission,” this film goes so far as to allow characters to remove their helmets and breathe freely on Mars. Sorry, but no one’s breathing on Mars without a suit. Not just because the air is lethal, and terraforming a local area of the planet is not enough, but the atmospheric pressure is extremely low. If not safely contained in a pressurized suit, the human body would bulge outward. Basically you’d look like a Peanuts character with an oval head and horribly distorted features. I can’t imagine it would be kind to your blood flow and general physiology either. So, to sum it all up: you cannot breathe on Mars under any circumstances without a pressurized suit.
5. Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964)
Since this film was made in the early 60s, before we landed on Mars for the first time in 1976, I’ll cut it some slack. But wow, did they have it all wrong! Just some of the offenses here are as follows:
- 1. Anyone can breathe on Mars, but only for short periods of time because the atmosphere is thin, not poisonous per-se.
- 2. There is some active volcanic activity on Mars and a curious wandering fireball appears from time to time.
- 3. Liquid water is available in pools and running streams so you can drink it and swim in it recreationally.
- 4. You can take an oxygen pill to alleviate the affects of the thin air and therefore wander around freely.
- 5. You can build a campfire on Mars with some coal-like rocks, which conveniently give off oxygen at the same time they are burning.
- 6. Oh, and you can traverse the planet by running through the underground canals.
I could go on, but I won’t.
6. The Angry Red Planet (1959)
This movie has got to be the most catastrophically over-the-top Mars movie ever. Our astronauts encounter carnivorous plants, horrific monsters, a giant spider-bat-rat creature, alien force fields and a giant amoeba. Not much else needs to be said regarding this portrayal of Mars. It’s pure spectacle in the best B-movie way possible.
7. War Of The Worlds (1953)
Since this film was produced during the cold war, it is implied that the “Martians” were merely a substitute for “Russians.” Nevertheless, the concept of intelligent, terrestrial Martians is one that has seen its fair share of play in movies and television before and after that period of time. Despite the whole Cold War backdrop, I suppose sitting in a theater in 1953, before mankind had landed on Mars, one could have entertained the notion that actual inhabitants of Mars did exist. But, they don’t. What we know about Mars is that in the very distant past, when water was present on the surface, conditions could have been right for a habitable zone. Any life that did exist was likely microbial. But finding evidence of past habitability is a daunting challenge, one that we are still pursuing. So you can forget warmongering multi-limbed creatures with Technicolor eyes!
8. Outland (1982)
The Sean Connery sci-fi thriller “Outland” was basically a Western (think “High Noon”) in space. The problem with this film is not so much in its story, where a local sheriff takes down the bad guys, but in its setting. “Outland” is supposed to take place on Jupiter’s moon, Io. I suppose back in 1982 the idea of having a fully operational manned mining operation on Io was plausible. Knowing what we know now, it’s ridiculous! Io is not a dark, quiet rock in space. It is one of the most geologically active places in the entire solar system. Io is a volcanic world. It’s no bigger than Earth’s moon, yet it has over 400 active volcanoes! There are lava flows hundreds of miles wide and volcanic ash plumes are being constantly jettisoned into space. The fierce gravitational forces of Jupiter and its other moons are literally squeezing Io – deforming it and pulling it in multiple directions. The ground on Io is incredibly unstable, constantly lifting and falling like our ocean tides. No human edifice could withstand these geologic forces. In fact, you couldn’t even land on Io. You’d be far better off setting up shop on a large asteroid… unless of course it’s heading toward Earth and Ben Affleck shows up to destroy it.
9. 2001 and 2010 (1968 and 1984 respectively)
Let me just say up front, I do regard Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a film classic. I will never argue the technical merit of the film, which, for its time (and even by today’s standards) is staggering. But both films are forever dated. The biggest error here is the idea that by 2001 and 2010 we will have manned missions to the outer solar system – specifically Jupiter. I can only opine, but I feel confident that we will not see a manned mission to the outer planets for a very, very, very long time. The engineering challenges for this kind of mission are staggering when you consider a manned crew would not only need to survive in a region of space where radiation is extremely intense due to a harsh charged-particle environment around Jupiter, but endure what would most certainly be a 5 to 10 year round trip. The costs associated with a mission like this are colossal. We haven’t even made it to Mars yet with a manned mission, and the red planet is a much closer target.
10. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Remember V’ger? It was revealed at the end of the movie that the mysterious and seemingly all powerful super intelligent entity was in fact a Voyager probe sent from Earth hundreds of years earlier. Here’s where they missed it: There were only 2 Voyagers launched from Earth. In Star Trek, it is referred to as Voyager 6, and it was speculated to have launched around 1999, though they never actually pinpoint a date. Perhaps at the time they made the film, only one year after the launch of Voyager 2, it stood to reason that there would be at least four more Voyagers. There weren’t. After Voyager came Magellan, which studied Venus, and then came Galileo, which went to Jupiter. Not a huge deal, but still fun to note. Currently, Voyager 1 is some 10.8 billion miles from our sun! It is at a point so far away that there is no outward motion of solar wind! It is about to cross the threshold into truly interstellar space! And yes, we still communicate with it.
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At this point you might be thinking, so what — it’s science fiction! Suspension of disbelief! Lighten up! I get it. I suspend my disbelief for movies and TV all the time. But having worked for NASA for a couple of years, specifically in the area of robotic exploration of our solar system, I’m sensitive to the gap, and sometimes gulf, between where we thought we would be in science fiction and where we actually are. I think its fun to see a sci-fi scenario played out in film and television, with a date attached to it, and then see that date come and go. For current sci-fi movies and shows predicting events and technologies 20 or 30 years out, beware… we may get there sooner than you think!
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Eric Tozzi is an LA-based director, editor and producer working in the independent film, web series and documentary fields. As a director, Eric created one of the very first dramatic web series, “The Dirty Bomb Diaries” which was released in early 2007 before most people knew what a web series was. Eric currently works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Mars Public Engagement office, producing and editing documentary content that chronicles past, present and future Mars Exploration Missions.